'Forced' into exile, Vaishnavi Jakka Reddy excels in Bangkok as World No. 4 Ratchanok Intanon's sparring partner
When India's men's and women's squads for the Thomas and Uber Cup were announced, there were a few surprises. While the likes of Kidambi Srikanth and PV Sindhu were not included, a bunch of youngsters were named in the squad, in a first by the Badminton Association of India (BAI).
One such youngster is a 16-year-old, who is currently the Junior World No. 4. She is only the second Indian after Saina Nehwal to reach this high in the junior circuit. In her short career, she has achieved the success that people her age can only dream of. Vaishnavi Jakka Reddy is one of a kind.
The Hyderabad-born shuttler took to the sport when she was just 10-years-old, back in 2012. Back then, she had, self-admittedly, not taken it seriously. She used to go for only the evening sessions, and play for fun.
Cut to 2018, the same Vaishnavi will be representing the country at the prestigious Uber Cup in Bangkok.
"It’s a good opportunity for me because I’ll gain a lot of experience by playing with the top players. It’s a big thing for me obviously," the 16-year-old told Sportskeeda over the phone.
'I come close to beating Ratchanok'
Until early 2016, Vaishnavi used to, like almost every other budding badminton player in the country, trained at the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad. However, the circumstances were such that family decided that it would be best for her to shift base to Bangkok.
In Bangkok, she trains at the Banthongyord Badminton School under Chinese coach Xie Xhuhua in the advanced group. One of the popular names in this group? Thailand's star shuttler Ratchanok Intanon.
"I'm gaining a lot of experience here and it's all very advanced. Ratchanok and I are in the same group. I have learnt a lot of techniques from her, her speed on the court is something I marvel at. Playing with her gives me a lot of confidence. There are players from other countries also training here. So, I gain experience by playing against them as well.
"Moreover, the same coach who trains Ratchanok trains me. Since coming here, I have improved a lot of different strokes, a little bit of speed and my overall game," Vaishnavi, who idolises Ratchanok and PV Sindhu, reflects.
On being asked how she fares against the World No. 4, she says with a chuckle. "I do play a lot of matches with her but I don’t win. I have come close, though."
A 'forced' move to Bangkok
It was in February 2016 that Vaishnavi, along with her father and grandmother, moved to Thailand. The move was a big one but it was necessary, feels her father.
"It was because of (Pullela) Gopichand that we left India. Actually, before we left, Vaishnavi was one of the best shuttlers in her age group. In fact, in U13 and U15, she was ranked No. 1 in India. Despite that, at the academy, proper training was not provided to her. The coaches would never sit at her matches in tournaments, the entire focus was on Gayatri (Gopichand)," Vaishnavi's father Vinod Kumar reveals.
"I had to take a decision overnight for my daughter. At that time, all these things were affecting her adversely," he adds.
Spending almost the entirety of your life in one place and then uprooting and moving to a new place, it is no joke. Especially when you are a single father looking after a teenaged daughter. Not only that, Vaishnavi's grandmother also left her kin behind.
"It was a difficult move for all of us. But I was forced to take the decision. Vaishnavi misses India a lot. The language is different here and you cannot just come and be a Thai. If you are an Indian, you are an Indian. They will still see you as a foreigner. Her grandmother is 70 years old. She is on a wheelchair and she has no one to talk to, only Whatsapp calls," Vinod says.
However, he never raised his daughter to be a quitter. Today, Vaishnavi remains unperturbed by her surroundings. She has forgotten whatever happened in the past and only wants to improve her game.
"I have brought up my child to be strong right from a very young age. These are all obstacles, you will have to face them. But things are going on well now and let’s hope for the best as well in the bigger picture," Vinod says.
From 600's to Junior World No. 4
While the move to Bangkok was a difficult one, it has only benefitted Vaishnavi. Not only has she managed to get her mind off certain things, the promising shuttler has also managed to improve vastly and thereby, enjoy a meteoric rise up the rankings.
"When she left for Bangkok, she was ranked in the 600's. And she has climbed up to No. 4 in the world now," a proud Vinod says. But along with the success came criticism.
Many people are of the opinion that Vaishnavi plays in a lot of tournaments around the world because her father can afford to take her everywhere. Thus, it is only natural that she will climb up the rankings. What these people don't understand is that to climb up rankings, it is not enough just to take part in tournaments; one has to win as well.
"There are always critics in every sport," says Vinod, "Some people will say that her father has money and will take her to every tournament. But it is so stupid. It doesn't mean anything. If you have to be in the top 5, you need to win tournaments. It is not like you can participate in tournaments and just climb up. It's not possible. She has won 7 golds and has a total medal tally."
When asked about what he expects Vaishnavi to achieve in the coming days, Vinod says, "Every father or every mother will feel that their child is the best. In humble words, you will pray for her best. Maybe by the end of the year, if she does well, she will be No. 2. Beating No. 1 is not easy because of the gap of points. I think she can beat the No. 2 by January 2019."
"But she still has to improve her game. In Australian Open, she played against Han Yue who is also 18 years old and she lost quite badly. There is a huge gap and you have to work very hard. Hopefully, God will be kind and we'll see how it goes," he concludes.